The Rise of the Right
VTR Date: June 27, 1984
Guest: Rusher, William
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: William Rusher
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. I grew up a liberal New Dealer. I make no bones about that characterization. Yet so many of the friends I have made and so many of the people whose ideas have intrigued me most call themselves conservatives that perhaps often the most fun I’ve had here on The Open Mind is when one of them is my guest. Well today it’s William Rusher, publisher of National Review Magazine, whose new William Morrow book, “The Rise of the Right” makes such wonderfully good reading as an intimate behind-the-scenes account of the conservative movement since the Eisenhower years. And I’d like to have the liberty of reading a review that appeared in the Library Journal in June 1984. “Rusher, a leading conservative spokesman, has written a study of the recent American right that is part history, part memoir. Ronald Reagan is the hero of the piece but Rusher’s gloating over his election is tempered by candor and an unstated understated sense of…discussion of other major figures on the right his is …toward Goldwater and positively hostile toward Nixon. Rusher also rejects Gerald Ford because of Ford’s appointment of Nelson Rockefeller as vice president….conservative…authoritative style make this a book that can be read…by the general public, academics and specialists.” And I think that’s quite true. And Bill, thank you for joining me today.
RUSHER: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
HEFFNER: You know, reading the review – and it says just exactly what I was thinking – a little skewering of Goldwater here, a lot of…and even at times less than thorough enthusiasm for Reagan. Who are your right heroes?
RUSHER: Well, Ronald Reagan, among the political figures, is my hero. And I could think that he would be the hero of any reasonable conservative. I didn’t certainly mean to skewer Barry Goldwater. If I did, and I’m not sure that I did, it does deserve to be pointed out that Barry Goldwater was a very hard study where Reagan was concerned. He…over Reagan in 1968 for the nomination and supported Ford over Reagan again in 1978. But that’s simply history, and I think an interesting part of the history of the conservative movement. Barry Goldwater has been too much to this movement for me to be unduly critical of him.
HEFFNER: But you know, there seemed to me at times in reading “The Rise of the Right” that you didn’t have much patience for those who didn’t fit into your conception of the right right. Is that a fair statement?
RUSHER: I don’t think it is. Depending again on whether we are talking about political figures, men who rave to run for office, or whether we’re talking about people who speak for or are regarded as spokesmen for the right or for the conservative movement. The latter have some responsibility to speak for it with a certain amount of intelligibility, and accuracy. Politicians have a harder time. I forgive politicians a good deal simply because in this most imperfect world they have to cope with a reality that is often very unsatisfactory to them as well as to us. Ronald Reagan could make a great many more slips from conservative than he has before I got really impatient with him.
HEFFNER: Well, your friend in the movement toward the right, Richard Viguerie has been a guest here on The Open Mind. And I think he’s shown a considerable impatience with the president.
RUSHER: Oh, certainly. And now Richard’s something else again. I know him well. I like him. I admire him. I respect him. He’s a perfectly sincere man. But it is important to understand what has and hasn’t happened in the case of Viguerie. Look, he lives in Washington. The Washington Post is nothing if not fair. Having printed a whole series of liberal attacks on Ronald Reagan, it insists upon going out and printing a series of conservative attacks on Ronald Reagan. And it discovered very early in Reagan’s administration that a dependable source of conservative attacks was Richard Viguerie. Viguerie in turn discovered that he could get on page one of The Washington Post or very nearly page one, any day he was willing to attack Reagan. So some symbiosis developed there in which The Post got something out of it, and Viguerie got something out of it. I resist the idea that Viguerie speaks for any large number of conservatives. He speaks for a few. But I think in this particular position he was mistaken. And I was glad to see in January that he himself issued a press release endorsing Ronald Reagan for reelection.
HEFFNER: But you say, ‘He speaks for comparatively few conservatives.’ What is the conservative ethos? And doesn’t it embrace both of you, you and Viguerie?
RUSHER: It does, it does. Certainly it does. But I’m just talking about the generality of people who call themselves conservative. Take the group that meets each year of political activists called the Conservative Political Action Conference that meets in Washington usually in February each year. It’s addressed every year by President Reagan. And a year ago, 1983, in February, was really the height of their disaffection, supposedly, from Ronald Reagan. And yet they took a poll at that meeting: 88 percent of the people at it thought Ronald Reagan should run for reelection. Now that’s not bad. So I think that the idea that there is any widespread disaffection from Reagan among conservatives is wrong. Individual conservatives are perfectly at liberty to feel that this or that position that he has taken is mistaken. A lot of them are concerned about the deficit as we all are, as he is. But that’s far from saying that the conservative movement is angry at Reagan.
HEFFNER: You think, you thought, you believed that Richard Nixon is not a true conservative?
RUSHER: I am as certain of that as I am of anything. Richard Nixon is a very complex man. In many ways a very able politician. Insofar as he has any political point of view, it is probably right centrist somewhere. But there is a heavy overlay of opportunism there, it seems to me. One could hardly look across the years and see it all from one end to the other without thinking that. And when he announced in 1970 that wage and price controls didn’t work and then less, I think, than a year later imposed them, it’s a little hard to see consistency in that kind of conduct. So that he realized slowly – he was not the first nor the fastest to realize how important the conservative movement was becoming in our politics – but he eventually realized it, well ahead of most people, moved to put himself in a reasonable relation to it, and yet to be able to reach beyond it. And that at the time was successful.
HEFFNER: You say, you talk about consistency, and you deny it to him. Consistency to what? Consistent to what? What are the principles?
RUSHER: Well, consistent to almost any set of principles. It is possible to be consistent to liberal principles. Perfectly possible. Lots of people are in Nixon’s case, he wasn’t. He hasn’t been consistent, as far as I can see, to any particular set of principles.
HEFFNER: Do you think that’s true generally of the people who have succeeded most in the American political tradition?
RUSHER: Recently I think so, within our lifetimes, yes. Nixon and for that matter Kissinger are very good examples of a type of political operator that I call Machiavellian. And I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense of the word. I mean that they truly believe that the world consists of a struggle for power. That the most that one can hope to do is to be a very good black belt karate expert in this shifting game of pressures. And when they…such a person comes across a principle, it does not have any special significance for him. He can perceive it. There’s another factor taken into account. Another principle walks in, take that into account. But you take it into account the way you take the weather into account, the way you take your opponent’s looks into account. It is just another piece on the chessboard of the mind. That is not, in my opinion, the way politics should be played.
HEFFNER: But isn’t that a principle of and by itself? You describe them as Machiavellian.
RUSHER: It’s not a principle in the sense in which I use the word. It’s a modus operatum. It’s a way of looking at the world. It is a form of blindness because I think it missies a lot of the world. I think that even Jimmy Carter for all his many deficiencies perceived the necessity of principle in American politics. And so does Ronald Reagan, from a quite different perspective. Much more than either, say, Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon.
HEFFNER: But again, let’s go back to the question of principle. You indicate that one’s conception of the nature of human nature is basic to one’s political philosophy.
RUSHER: What’s the nature of man? Yes.
HEFFNER: All right. Now, haven’t Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger based their careers, haven’t they based their careers upon a picture , a concept of human nature?
HEFFNER: Weren’t they principled in that way?
RUSHER: In that way. But not meaning to draw – I hope this is clear – any parallel…this is true of the Communists. In fact, I guess it’s true of the Nazis. They based their politics upon a concept of the nature of man. To that extent, they were principled.
HEFFNER: Do you not?
RUSHER: I certainly do. But I don’t think that that is what makes me or anybody else principled. I think that one has to have a view of the world. Even the principle that there are no principles is in a sense, a principle I suppose. That’s not one that I would abide by or consider sufficient. Of course, that’s what Everett Dirkson said. He said, you know, I am a man of principle and my first principle is flexibility.
HEFFNER: And yours, Bill?
RUSHER: Well, it would go back to that nature of man. Either man is, as the materialists would say, as my old professor at Princeton, Buzzer Hall stated it for them, ‘Man is simply an insignificant insect on a flying goo of mud’, in which case perhaps he is not the significant entity at all. Perhaps society is more important than the individual and can impose terrible burdens on the individual. Or man is the individual, is the significant actor in the drama of life, that he has been created by God, however you want to define God, and that society and life are the arena in which he works out his obligations, or fails to. Now, if that is the case, whatever else we say, the important factor, the unit we’re studying in life is the individual. And society exists, in a sense, as the arena in which his drama can be played out. Now that makes a tremendous difference in the way you approach almost any political question.
HEFFNER: But if you see as the center of this great drama the individual, why are you quite as negative – I don’t think that’s an unfair word – when it comes to the libertarian movement?
RUSHER: Well, libertarianism, meaning first by that simply what used to be called two centuries ago or last century, classic liberals, is, as I say in the beginning of the book, one of the three great foundation stones or streams if you will, of modern American conservatism. The idea that mankind must be given his freedom so far as possible, both in his political choices and in his economic choices. And that this is a liberating idea that creates more genuine happiness and more creativity in the world than could otherwise be achieved is the fundamental principle of classical liberalism, and I subscribe to it. Now, libertarianism as we use that word today, usually is used to distinguish that far-out subdivision of classical liberalism typified nowadays by the Libertarian party in the United States. There are very few principles that can’t be run into the ground. Good principles. And my position is that libertarianism of that type and that extreme runs a good principle far into the ground.
HEFFNER: You’re not far out then in your rightist conviction?
RUSHER: I’m certainly not far out as a conservative. I’m somewhere in purely conservative terms, let’s say National Review terms, a little to the right of center, but not far.
HEFFNER: Why not?
RUSHER: Not because I am afraid of being far out. In other terms, when the National Review was founded and later within a matter of a year or two, I came to it, we were in technical terms, I suppose, far out from the then center of American politics. It never bothered me. So that was not why I have taken the position, Dick, at least I think I do, because I believe in it. And I will stick with it as long as I believe in it. And so far as possible, without reference to whether or not it is at a given moment a wildly popular position or a thoroughly unpopular one. I can’t imagine that being a Nixon…
HEFFNER: In political terms – not in terms of the cast of characters, Nixon or Eisenhower, Goldwater, or Reagan – political terms, though, in terms of political principle, what’s basic? What are the principles that are so basic to your own concept of human nature and of proper conservatism?
RUSHER: As I define them in the book, probably three. And they are not inconsistent. They each have their piece in the hierarchy of values. The highest of them is the belief that our political society is or ought to be an expression of our Judeo-Christian heritage, which is to say the heritage of the concept of man as the significant unit. Hierarchically, I think below that but at the level of grand strategy, comes the concept of classical liberalism. That’s to say, the notion of liberating mankind both politically and economically. This has been the strategy of freedom around the perimeter of the Atlantic during the last two centuries. And it has produced more sheer wealth and more opportunity and more genuine creativity, I would say, than most other times and places. At a tactical level, having to do with our time, with the situation as we find it here in the last half of the Twentieth Century, the problem is one of effectively resisting Communism, both Communism as a theory and Communism as it is practiced in the…and its relatively few allies in the world.
HEFFNER: Now, where in this spectrum do you fit concern or lack of concern for social legislation for anything from welfare to that security net that the president has spoken about?
RUSHER: Well, at the very top, in the concept of Judeo-Christian heritage, if the individual is indeed important, as we believe him to be, then it is extremely important that he must not be allowed to starve, that so far as possible to the society and in is time he must have decent medical care. I don’t mean to enact a particular social agenda, because we find – and this becomes the point really of classical liberalism in its modern phase – we discover that aid to families with dependent children turns out to be, as George Gilbert has, I think, established in his books, the destroyer of the Black family. We find that he minimum wage law, as it is presently set, is the principal reason why teenage males in our society cannot get jobs, because they cannot justify, economically, the kind of wages that they have to be paid under that law. So that these matters and the answer to them, and the considerations of the right come in right along the line.
HEFFNER: Specifically, I wondered if one were to take – I began the program by identifying myself as a traditional New Dealer – if one were to take the social legislation identified with the New Deal and the Fair Deal, where would you join forces in moving from 1933?
RUSHER: Join issue, or join forces?
HEFFNER: No, join forces.
RUSHER: Join forces.
HEFFNER: Where would you join forces with the changes that took place in this country under the New Deal and the Fair Deal?
RUSHER: Well, oddly enough, I’m just now reading Paul Johnson’s book, “Modern Times”, in which he points out that a good many of the statused and de regist regulations of the Roosevelt era which we identify so thoroughly with the New Deal were actually begun by Herbert Hoover. And I say that not to praise but to criticize Hoover a little bit, implicitly. Johnson’s hero is Coolidge. And I say that not frivolously at all. People who think that ideas aren’t changing on this subject are not keeping up with what’s being written in the world. But to answer your question, I would think that the regulatory mechanisms that keep the market free, things like the Securities Exchange Commission, like the antitrust regulations, are the most defensible and valuable of the New Deal reforms. I am sorry to say, to have to say, that although the concept of making sure that our elderly have a dignified old age is a tremendously valuable concept, and although, further, the promises that the politicians of the Roosevelt era made to those people and that have been made since must be kept, every last dime; still in all, what they imposed and pretended was this brilliant breakthrough: Social Security. It was simply a regressive payroll tax, virtually all of which was taken instantly and spent on the general purposes of these politicians. And then the future was left to pay the bill, the generation yet unborn, the young now coming along. This I would not join forces with them on.
HEFFNER: What would you do now? You say that very cent must be paid that was promised. But how, this new generation?
RUSHER: I think that if we’re talking about people who are not yet in the work force or just coming in, I think we must find new ways – and there are ways – or ensuring a decent old age. Much better ways, if I may say so. Simple annuities, properly managed, would do the job better than a progressive payroll tax which is spent instantly. But they must not be promised things that we are not, out in the years 2000 and beyond, going to be able to make good.
HEFFNER: Which brings me to a question that I’ve asked many of my guests here and many of the guests you’ve joined me in questioning on From the Editor’s Desk. How capable are we in terms of our economic mechanism and of the promise of American life? In terms of the resources we have? Of meeting the promises that we have made, of providing well enough for every American?
RUSHER: Well, I’m not a pessimist with regard to the overall productive capacity of the American society. I agree with J.P. Morgan. Never sell America short. That’s a bad mistake. And we will keep our promises. But we are going to pay dearly in the process. We are going to hurt as a society, perhaps, in other vital respects as we go through these later stages of this early mistake. And we will have to find a better way for the future. But it’s simply a matter of converting enough general revenue to the society.
HEFFNER: But Bill, where will we hurt if we meet the promises made?
RUSHER: Everywhere. Wherever else the general revenues might go. General revenues to begin with might stay with the people who created them in the first place.
HEFFNER: Don’t tax them quite so hard?
RUSHER: Exactly. That wouldn’t be such a bad idea. But if they’re going to be taxed anyway, these revenues could be spent on increasing medical benefits to people, on doing better by people who are genuinely unable to take care of themselves, in much more intensive job retraining as we come into the computer age, it would seem to me. And I haven’t even mentioned such matters as defense because I don’t know what will be necessary in defense. But I’ll tell you we’ll have to spend what’s necessary.
HEFFNER: Do you think right at this moment we are suffering in our defensive posture because of our social promises, our social legislation?
RUSHER: Well, there’s always a pulling and hauling for every single tax dollar. But I think that, thanks to the Reagan program, our defenses are in infinitely better shape than they were four years ago. And even though I notice that, interestingly enough, the difference between Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan is not over whether defense expenditures can be raised. They agree 100 percent, both of them, that they should be raised. The only issue has been over how much, whether it’s going to be six percent, whether it’s going to be 11 percent, or something of that sort.
HEFFNER: Talking about defense, I wondered whether, when the president talked about the Evil Empire, the Empire of Evil, in referring to the Soviet Union, you subscribed to the position that he took?
RUSHER: I did. And I think it’s rather important to understand the position that he took. Reagan, a lot of people seem to think that he was simply engaging in rhetoric. That this was some sort of rora montad, that he was just sticking out his tongue. He had much more on his mind than that. And he didn’t do it but once. But he stated it very carefully then. He described the Soviet Union to the Conference of Evangelicals in Orlando as ‘The focus of evil in the modern world.’ Now John Gardner at a conference we happened both to be at said to me once, ‘Most of the people who got disturbed about that don’t even understand the concept of evil. At least a lot of them don’t. That’s one reason they were so disturbed by it.’ Ronald Reagan understands it, as a conscious and aware inheritant of the Judeo-Christian heritage. He said that, not that it is the source of evil in the modern world. He knows perfectly well that there is evil in all of us, each of us. But the focus of evil in the modern world is this particular Soviet state. I think he is absolutely right. And I think it’s terribly important that people should remember it. That doesn’t mean, but the way, that we should therefore declare war on it. I happen to think – and I’m sure he thinks – that the last way you fight evil, real evil, is simply with bombs. At least it’s likely to be very ineffective. Evil is a much more protean thing than that. And it is really time, not bombs that’s going to bring down the Soviet Union.
HEFFNER: You know, one of the things that fascinated me most about “The Rise of the Right” was the sense at the end of the book – and it is an extraordinary book – the sense that there are times and tides for all movements. You expressed that.
HEFFNER: There was for liberalism. And you prophesied for conservatism too. In a sense, you indicate it will fall as it grows. What will happen to conservatism?
RUSHER: Let’s not confuse it with the pendulum theory.
RUSHER: Liberalism I don’t frankly consider in quite the same league. I consider liberalism a rather eclectic collection of things that came along and had a tremendous political success in a specific period of time. But that has visibly failed the test of time and has now begun to recede. Conservatism is a profound analysis of, as I said, the nature of man. So is the hard left, as I also say in the book. And the hard left and conservatism are the two real protagonists for the future of the world. Now, the American conservative movement, having restated the case for the Judeo-Christian tradition in our politics, having restated the strategy of freedom both political and economic, having restated the case against Communism as the tactical problem of our time – and there are other assignments that I give, at least hypothetically in the book – will sooner or later have spent itself. But conservatism, if we define it simply as the understanding, that understanding, in political terms, that understanding of the nature of man, is, I think, as permanent as anything human is going to be.
HEFFNER: In a few seconds, do you feel as you look at the political scene today, that there are other conservative leaders to take the president’s role?
RUSHER: Oh, yes. I feel less confident of, specifically, 1988 than I do of the longer-range future. The young people are coming along now. They’re on the march. They’ll be here.
HEFFNER: Bill Rusher, thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind.
RUSHER: My pleasure.
HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”